West Virginia governor signs tough new mine safety bill

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said March 21 that he has signed comprehensive coal mine safety reforms into law in West Virginia, which is the nation’s second-leading coal producing state.

“I’m proud of our state’s mine industry, I’m proud of our coal miners, and I’m proud we have passed this legislation,” Tomblin said. “Coal mining in West Virginia will be safer as a result our foresight and hard work. Again, I’d like to commend both the members and leadership of the House of Delegates and the Senate for working to ensure the safety of our coal miners.”

This bill is a direct upshot of an April 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 workers, making it the deadliest mining accident in the U.S. coal industry in many years. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, through the existing regulatory structure, has also cracked down on coal mine safety nationwide since the Upper Big Branch disaster.

The legislation signed by Tomblin, HB 4351, includes many safety improvements aimed toward preventing coal mine disaster injuries and fatalities:

  • it strengthens rock dusting requirements and provides new methane standards;
  • it codifies an anonymous mine safety tip line;
  • it requires pre-employment and random drug testing;
  • and, it increases fines and penalties for those who give advance notice of an inspector’s presence at a mine or who willfully violate any safety standard that causes a fatality, among other safety improvements aimed toward preventing coal mine disaster injuries and fatalities.

West Virginia is the largest coal producer east of the Mississippi River and accounts for more than one-tenth of total U.S. coal production. It also leads the nation in coal production from underground mines, which account for over one-half of state production. Underground mines are where safety concerns are the highest.

Alpha outlines new federal mine safety initiatives

In June 2011, Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE:ANR) took over Massey Energy after investor confidence in company management had been weakened by the Upper Big Branch accident. In its Feb. 29 annual Form 10-K report, Alpha outlined the incremental steps taken in recent years on the federal level to toughen coal mine safety laws and regulations.

In recent years, legislative and regulatory bodies at the state and federal levels, including MSHA, have invoked or proposed various statutes, regulations and policies relating to mine safety. The MINER Act passed in 2006 by Congress, in part due to another fatal Massey Energy accident earlier that year, mandated mine rescue regulations, new and improved technologies and safety practices in the area of tracking and communication, and emergency response plans and equipment. Although some new laws, regulations and policies are in place, these legislative and regulatory efforts are still ongoing, Alpha noted.

  • In October 2010, MSHA proposed a rule that would, in part, reduce the permissible concentration of respirable dust in underground coal mines from the current standard of 2 milligrams per cubic meter of air to one milligram per cubic meter, mandate the use of continuous personal dust monitors, address extended work shifts and redefine normal production shifts. 
  • In December 2010, MSHA proposed a rule to revise the requirements for pre-shift, supplemental, on-shift and weekly examinations of underground coal mines. The proposed rule would add a requirement that operators identify violations of mandatory health or safety standards. It would also require the mine operator to record and correct these violations, note the actions taken to correct the conditions and review with mine examiners on a quarterly basis all citations and orders issued in areas where pre-shift, supplemental, on-shift and weekly examinations are required.
  • In February 2011, MSHA published proposed changes to its Pattern of Violations (POV) program, which was created years ago but never used. Under the proposed changes, MSHA will consider all significant and substantial citations and orders issued, including non-final citations and orders, when determining POV status, will post the pattern criteria and compliance date online, and will review mines at least twice annually for POV status.
  • In August 2011, MSHA published a proposed rule to require certain underground mining equipment to be equipped with proximity detection systems that will shut the equipment down if a person is too close to the equipment.

“Final action by MSHA on these proposals remains pending,” Alpha reported. “At this time, it is not possible to predict the full effect that new or more stringent safety and health requirements will have on our operating costs, but they will increase our costs and those of others in the industry. Some, but not all, of these additional costs may be passed on to customers.”

Both federal and state authorities inspect Alpha’s operations, and given the Upper Big Branch explosion and related announcements by government authorities, Alpha said it anticipates additional requirements may be imposed and that there will be heightened inspection intensity. One of Alpha’s first priorities after it announced a deal to buy Massey, even before the deal closed, was to meet with MSHA managers to assure them that Alpha had a tougher internal mine safety program than Massey.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.